Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Culinary Conversations from Tuscany

Tomorrow we'll have been in Prato a month, amazingly - the time has gone so fast. We've had some visitors and settled into routines - and of course done some sight seeing. Just to introduce Prato, here is the scene from our third floor bedroom window. . .

And this is a view of Prato from the hills above the town. . .

And this is a view of Russ's back, on one of the tracks above the town, among the olive and fig trees, and grapes. It's a very familiar view to me (his back, that is. . .)

The old part of town, where we live, is surrounded by a medieval wall.

And of course we've made good use of the walkways and cycle tracks all along the river and up into the hills.

Prato just happens to be the center of the slow food movement, with all that conjures in terms of philosophy – using fresh seasonal produce, and as little processed food as possible. Every day I see locals gathering blackberries, stone fruits and crab apples, picking their figs, tending their olives, and I’m able to gather herbs like rosemary, dill, parsley and fennel from the walkways along the river. Of course I include myself as a local now, at least for the next couple of months.

It’s out the door by 7am at the moment if we want to get any exercise, as by 9am it’s simply getting too hot - 40 C now in the middle of the day, though hopefully next month it will cool down a bit. The Monday morning market, however, is not to be missed; apart from mouth watering produce, there’s every chance you’ll be sung an aria while you’re selecting your parmigiana or your pecorino! Some of the stall holders treat the markets as their source of entertainment as well as income, it seems, and love an audience -  a raison d’etre that makes perfect sense to me.

One of the real treats at this time of year is fresh porcini (piglet) mushrooms, plucked straight from the forest; mostly chestnut forests, but occasionally pine - truly, they are to die for, sliced and sautéed in olive oil, a little butter, garlic, salt, pepper, chopped flat leaf parsley, with and without a little mozzarella and gorgonzola melted in to finish them off. Toss them into pasta such as rotelle (wagon wheel) pasta and prepare to be transported. So simple, but so full of flavour. Rotelle catches all the sauce bits in its ‘spokes’ and is ideal for almost any chunky pasta sauce, incidentally.

Fresh porcini - the King of mushrooms

The guy on the left has a great voice. . as well as very good pecorino!

Layered mozzarella and gorgonzola is common in both France and Italy, and is ideal for adding a little creaminess with flavour but not too much ‘bite’ to many dishes – I’ve found it really useful, although sour cream and a creamy blue cheese could be substituted (not lite sour cream, as this can split when heated).

Peaches and nectarines are larger than those back home, but at the risk of banging on about this, we’ve yet to have any rot before they ripen. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of New Zealand stone fruit is just as good, but too often we’ve experienced rotting from the core out, before the fruit ripens, and I’m well aware that we’re not lone voices in this. I’m not bagging New Zealand producers; our produce, overall, is wonderful, and I’m certainly not saying this is endemic – but I’m genuinely bemused and disappointed by how often we and others have experienced this, and believe ripening is an issue that needs to be looked at seriously.

Florence fennel is another star of markets here – I love it thinly sliced and marinated as the base for a salad, but the other day I sautéed a large bulb (about 400g) in olive oil and garlic – slowly, until the fennel was well softened. I’m sometimes put off sautéed and roasted fennel because it turns a rather pallid grey colour, but I tossed in 300g of one of the delicious seafood* mixes available here at the end, just to cook through, then stirred in a spoonful or two of layered mozzarella/gorgonzola to melt in and give just a suggestion of creaminess - then some basil pesto (home made) to add colour and flavour. Season, serve with rotelle or a similar al dente pasta – ah, squisito!

*Misto scoglio is a seafood mix, available frozen or fresh, of baby seafood – mussels, squid, octopus, prawns, clams.

There are capsicums and chillies of every shape and size, and basil, of course – my kitchen whiz/wand has been working overtime whipping up basil pesto as well as gazpacho, it’s really earning its keep – I’m just hoping that my baggage allowance will let me take it home!

As for tomatoes, surely someone who contributes to the Farmers markets in New Zealand will try to source seeds for the sweetest, most delicious tomato I’ve ever tasted. They’re called datterini, because of the similarity in size and shape to dates. I actually eat them as I do grapes, as well as throw them into salads, and use them to top pizzas and pastas.

Datterini pomodori - simply the best!
I’ve been marinating roasted eggplant (melitzano) slices to serve as a side salad, and really enjoy them. I’ve been on the lookout for ideas around this for some time, and once I’d tasted them at a local trattoria, I couldn’t wait to try to recreate the recipe myself.  Okay, it didn’t turn out quite the same, but I like it just as much. . the marinade is a combination of apple cider vinegar, sugar, and a small amount of olive oil ( as the eggplant is roasted with oil).

Also, marinated zucchini salad is very good, using raw zucchini – the round ones, which are denser than the long – salted and then marinated in a similar marinate of olive oil, apple cider vinegar and sugar. Light green zucchini are favoured here, baby ones, almost always with the flowers still attached – this not only indicates freshness, but the flowers can be tossed in at the end of sautéing, or used as a garnish. Larger flowers are often sold separately, and can be stuffed with, for example, ricotta, egg and fresh herbs, coated in a very light batter and pan or deep fried. The flowers can also be steamed. Most zucchini flowers in Tuscany are stuffed, but further south they are simply lightly battered and fried. I’ll say more about these later, but surely we could sell these at Farmers markets in New Zealand, and educate people how to make use of them – it seems so wasteful not to, and they are delicious as well as eye catching.

Instead of the baguettes and croissants of France, it’s foccacia and ciabatta here; all good, but I have been puzzled as to why they rarely contain salt – especially given the amount of perspiration you exude every day in the summer. Possibly it’s because much traditional food eaten with bread here is salty – olives, prosciutto, and anchovies for example.

Which brings me to anchovies sold in the markets from large tins. When I first saw these, I really didn’t know what to do with them, and unfortunately my phrasebook Italian is not up to culinary conversations; a constant source of frustration when I want to find things out. However, a friend from Norway who speaks Italian helped me out and I discovered that you wash them thoroughly, inside and out, open them up along the back, then simply lift out the entire skeleton. Very simple for a farm girl like me. Then it’s a matter of extra virgin olive oil, with finely chopped garlic and parsley. No, you don’t have them with a salad or with tomatoes I was told, very emphatically, only with bread.

It’s very difficult to explain how delicious these are; apparently Spanish anchovies are the best, although I’ve now tried the Italian and they seem almost as good to me. What I can tell you is that there is a world of difference between these and the fillets we buy in jars and tins at home. Hmmm...imagine inviting someone to lunch and serving them anchovy fillets in olive oil, garlic and parsley accompanied only by white bread – a raised eyebrow or two, perhaps?? But these are beyond good and actually don’t need anything else.

I am keeping up my cheese intake, but here it’s parmesan and pecorino, gorgonzola and buffalo mozzarella rather than the brie and camemberts of France. I do miss those bries and camemberts, I have to say – but I'm not complaining too much. . . 
Below is a recipe for foccacia, from my catering business. The ingredients can be halved, of course, but it is rather addictive . . .It seems rather presumptuous to be living in Italy and to publish a recipe for foccacia bread, but in a previous blog I said that Claudine had been impressed with my foccacia, and asked for the recipe - so I thought I'd post it, too (it's so easy to make and so good).

 Delicious served as is, as part of an antipasto platter or split and filled (try fresh tomato slices and smoked cheese for example). Make it on the day you intend to eat it, although any leftovers can be refreshed in an oven the next day, uncovered, OR crisp it lightly in a dry pan and use it as a base as you would shallow fried polenta, for pan fried fish, for example, topped with grilled or baked portobello mushrooms.
Not suitable to freeze. Halve the recipe if you wish.
4 cups plain flour
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
4 tsp granulated yeast
2 Tbsp roughly chopped rosemary leaves
1/3 cup stoned and chopped black olives (optional)
2 ¼ cups warm water
½ cup olive oil
2 tsp rock salt, crushed
2 tsp dried oregano or majoram, optional, or an extra 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
Place the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, rosemary and olives if using into a bowl large enough to allow for rising. Mix in the warm water with a knife as you would a scone dough.
Pour the olive oil over the top of the dough, cover with a clean tea towel and leave for approximately one hour in a warm, draught free place.  When the bread has doubled in size, mix in as much of the olive oil as possible - a clean hand is the most efficient way to do this, taking about 20 seconds.
Transfer the dough to a lightly greased or sprayed roasting dish (or two 30cm pizza tray).
Use the largest roasting pan you have  - a shallow one is best though not strictly necessary, and 45cm x 33cm is ideal.
Reserve any olive oil not incorporated into the dough.
Push the dough into roughly the shape of the pan, though you will feel some resistance at this stage. Allow it to relax for about 10 minutes, then push it evenly into the corners.
Pre heat the oven to 220 c.
Allow the dough to rise again, uncovered, in a draught free place, for a further hour.
Using your fingers, lightly dimple the surface of the dough, taking care not to collapse it by being too enthusiastic, and drizzle the reserved olive oil evenly over the surface. Crush the rock salt lightly and sprinkle evenly over the top of the bread, followed by the dried oregano or majoram if using or the extra rosemary.
Bake at 220 C for 15 minutes, or until golden and crisped on top and bottom.
Slide a fish slice under the baked bread and immediately transfer to a cake rack to cool. A good idea is to support one end of the rack on top of a cup to lift it higher to prevent the bread steaming underneath, so that it retains its crispness.

From our terrace, watching the moon rise

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Upper Nivernais Canal - by boat

9/8/11: It's been a busy 3-4 weeks, and largely without internet access; but now we're in one place again, in Prato, Tuscany.

It was quite hard to leave La Cour Barree, we had such a good time and made so many new friends; but we'll be back there some day, hopefully, or they'll head down south to visit us. With Russ on annual leave for a week, we headed for Tannay to pick up our boat with friends Jean and Jenny, feeling especially excited as we'd heard a couple of weeks previously that we'd been upgraded to a bigger boat.

We've travelled on the lower Nivernais, the Borgogne, and the canal de Midi at different times in the past, but Russ has always wanted to travel the upper Nivernais. I wasn't quite so sure, mainly because it has one stretch of 16 locks; he, of course, was delighted with this prospect; but then he would be.

We'd also heard it was 'wilder', more remote and without as many villages along the way, but in its favour those who have done it had said it's very beautiful. We've always taken 10 days for what is offered as a 7-day trip, as we like to have time to get off the boat and onto the bikes to do a bit of exploring in the villages, chateaux, local markets and the countryside if we can. Three to four hour's boating a day is perfect, and it means there's no rush to get to the drop-off point on time. In this case, that was Decize, about 90km away - ten days to travel 90km - hmmmm.

I'm sure that some people expect to be lounging on these boats with a book and a gin and tonic, (or bottle of chablis) but although of course there is down-time for this, while the boat is on the move you have to be alert for the next lock - and getting through the locks is, most often, quite a slow process - as it has been since the 1830's. That's the point, though - slowing down not to the point of inertia, but having the luxury of taking a few deep breaths as you step back in time.

On the way to Tannay to pick up the boat, we swung by Vezeley, a lovely walled town on a ridge we've visited on one of our previous canal trips. The cobbled streets here are inlaid with brass scallop shells, the sign of the 'Coquille St Jacques', indicating the pilgrim trail to Santiago del Compostella in northern Spain. Russ wants to walk this when he retires, it's only about 2,000 kilometres according to him - should be a doddle! In Paris there is a monument to St Jacques, with constantly playing films around the circular walls of all the pilgrim trails to Santiago del Compostella - the film maker walked them all, taking a photograph every 11 steps of the way, so that they appear as an animation of the journey - awesome. 

Vezeley is famous not only for that, but the cathedral claims to house relics (bones) of Mary Magdalene; and two of the great crusades (one led by Richard the Lionheart) left from the steps of the cathedral.
One of the villages from the Vezeley wall

Vezeley  - now which way's north?
We picked up the boat in searing 37 C heat, but much as I'd love to brag that we had great weather all the way, that wouldn't be the truth. It's very hot here in Prato now, but even Tuscany had unseasonably cool weather over the ten days we were on the boat. It really didn't matter, though, we had a great time, only got wet once and had lots of sunshine as well - off and on sunshine, admittedly, but it wasn't cold.

Louis, Claudine and the girls joined us on our second day, they've lived beside the canal all their lives but have never been on one of these boats.  The kitchen was a bit more spacious than others I've been on, but I kept lunch simple - rice and ham salad, a green salad, baguettes of course, and rock melon with prosciutto. I'd said to Claudine she could bring some Normandy camembert, which is just the best - but nothing else. Of course that didn't work, and the family arrived with not only two camemberts but a wonderful assortment of small cakes like Paris Brest and others, all of which were divine.

Unless the canal banks have been mowed, shorts and sandals can be hazardous if you're on the ropes, as stinging needles are a scourge in some places. Celine told me that when the plants are young, the young leaves are included in salads, or used to make nettle soup, and that they are more tasty than spinach. I would have loved to try, but where we went the plants were either too big or mown flat. I've often wondered why New Zealanders aren't more open to picking wild greens - chickweed, for example, makes a really good salad.
Of the two camemberts Claudine brought, one was made from pasteurised milk, and one was en cru, made  from unpasteurised. Both were delicious, but I guess there's no prizes for guessing that we all liked the  unpasteurised one best; another good reason for physically visiting France, obviously. Many French cuisine traditionalists regard pasteurised cheeses as almost a sacrilege - after all, many of the reputedly best French cheeses have been made solely from raw milk for hundreds of years, so why, they ask, should they stop now?

Just the way I like it !

Claudine and Louis, taking turns driving

The next night we were on the bikes, just cruising between villages from our mooring at Sardy when we came across a sign for a snail farm "le maison des escargots' (House of Snails), which of course we couldn't resist having a look at.

The farmer was very obliging, and showed us how the snails are farmed - they do look just like the ones in our garden, only a bit bigger!

I'm guessing he supplies restaurants as well as sells from the gate, as they weren't cheap - however, he obviously knew what he was talking about and took pride in his product, so after close questioning to ensure I knew how to cook them from frozen, we bought two dozen.  I have been served escargots in restaurants that have been overcooked and a trifle rubbery in texture, but I followed our snail farmer's instructions precisely, and have to say they really were delicious - tender and succulent, drenched in butter and minced garlic, parsley and shallot.

Bon appetite!

All that remained !
On the fourth day of our journey, we turned east and headed up the Sardy flight of locks. This was to be a highlight of our trip. It is a very beautiful area and one well worth visiting. In fact Russ considers it to be a French national treasure.

Checking out the 16 locks after dinner the night before

A lock keeper's cottage



At the top, we followed an elderly couple in a tiny boat . . .

into a couple of long and scarily narrow tunnels. . .

This is beginning to feel like a Disney ride!

to Baye and down into the Loire Valley.

We didn't always eat on the boat as it was nice to have the odd restaurant meal; most often, though, it was more convenient to cook where we stopped. From recollection, the most successful meals I served up were a spaghetti with smoked trout (easily as nice as smoked salmon), with olive oil, lots of lightly sauteed garlic, lemon zest, and lemon juice to finish, with flat leaf parsley as a garnish; and a deep dish frittata.

For the frittata I diced and boiled waxy potatoes until they were just cooked, sauteed onion, garlic, finely sliced courgette and red capsicum, then combined them with eggs, plain unsweetened greek yoghurt, a little milk, and a crumbled blue cheese. I had to bake it in an oval casserole dish so it was deeper than I've ever made one before, but I've decided I like it that way.

There was a nice cassoulet, too; beans with herbs de provence, a small amount of a tasty sausage like a chorizo,  a splash of red wine and tomatoes. . .

And, store-bought crepes, large but very thin, that I used like canneloni to encase sauteed pleurotte mushrooms (oyster) and roast eggplant, again with a creamy blue cheese melted in along with some creme fraiche. A few spoonfuls of tomato pasta sauce over the top, and baked - yum.

The Loire valley is quite a different landscape, much larger scale farming and lots more cattle, mainly charolais.

Charolais grande
But of course there were still chateaux to see, like these significant ruins someone is living in still

And this

Verdict? Don't let the locks put you off if you're contemplating a trip along the upper Nivernais.
There was even talk from el capitain that if he could, he'd turn around and do the trip back. . .